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When we were in Portland over Christmas, the local newspaper ran a story about the “discovery” of a rare Italian cookbook, one that predates Pellegrino Artusi’s famous cookbook, The Art of Eating Well (1881). This book, Il Cuoco Maceratese by Antonio Nebbia, was published in 1809, making it one of the oldest Italian cookbooks we know of. And it’s from Le Marche, too!
The article included a recipe for a sumptuous lasagna, filled with silky béchamel sauce literally ladened with truffles. It’s called “Lasagna Princisgrass” because it was rich enough for a prince. We didn’t have time to make it in Oregon, but Michael thought it would be a fun primo for Valentine’s Day. He didn’t follow the recipe exactly—he added an egg yolk and fontina cheese to the béchamel to make it like a Tyrolian fonduta—and instead of plain pasta, he colored the dough red with organic beet juice! It was an excellent starter to accompany our secondo of lobster tails and Israeli couscous. We finished with a homemade chocolate mousse laced with peperoncino and sea salt.
We spent Christmas in Portland with my family this year, but we still celebrated the Italian-American Christmas Eve feast, La Vigilia, or the feast of the seven fishes. It’s not certain where this tradition arose, but fish is symbolic in Catholicism (a symbol of rebirth) and it’s been said that the “lighter” meal on Christmas Eve is a form of abstinence in preparation for the greater feast on Christmas Day. Although, we don’t usually scrimp on the servings! And, why seven fishes? It’s most likely a religious reference, since seven corresponds to the number of sacraments, deadly sins, etc.
While every family has their own traditions, typically you eat baccalà (salted cod fish), calamari, scungilli (conch), anguilla (eel) and escarole stuffed with anchovies. And, in Michael’s family, it’s mostly fried. Michael doesn’t even like fried fish much—particularly not baccalà!—but it’s tradition. So, we bought some salted cod, fresh Dungeness crab (my absolute favorite—Maryland crabs don’t even compare), shrimp, calamari, and escargot (in place of the conch). We made a delicious seafood salad filled with pickled vegetables, crab and clams. Next on the menu was pasta allo scoglio, with homemade linguine, crabs and clams, and pasta aglio e olio (oil and garlic). Michael’s family typically makes aglio e olio, but we wanted to honor Pesaro with one of its most popular dishes, pasta allo scoglio. Plus, the Dungeness crabs were too good to pass up. Then, we made fried calamari and a twist on the usual fried baccalà: baccalà/potato cakes. We looked for escarole but it was very difficult to find in Oregon—several stores had it on order, but nothing came in before Christmas. As an Italian-American from New Jersey, Michael always marvels that grocery stores don’t have baccalà or escarole readily available. They had to specially order the baccalà—a few days later it came packaged in a delicate wooden box—a far cry from the hanging baccalà in the supermarkets in New Jersey or in the pescherie in Italy. The last time we spent Christmas in Portland we just went to the Asian markets and found all the fish we needed! The meal turned out great as you can see in these photos.
To learn more about the Italian Christmas Eve feast, read this article that Michael just published in the journal Food and Foodways.
I had some cranberry panettone for breakfast and was amused that the box (purchased in New Jersey) called it an authentic recipe from Italy. Cranberries aren’t indigenous to Italy, and I’ve never been able to find them in any store. We had to bring our own can of cranberries for Thanksgiving last year so we could celebrate the holiday properly. Wonder if this version will ever gain popularity in Italy?
Felice Anno Nuovo! I’ve been lax in my entries lately due to holidays and work, but it’s 2011 and a new year to write. Yesterday was the Epiphany, which celebrates the arrival of the Three Kings bearing gifts to Jesus, as well as the end of the 12 days of Christmas. It also signified the arrival of La Befana. In Italian folklore, La Befana is an old woman (often depicted as a witch) who visits Italian children on Epiphany Eve and, like Santa Claus, fills their stockings with gifts—or coal, if they’ve been naughty! There are various stories about how La Befana came into existence, but my personal favorite is this one: the Three Kings asked La Befana to come bring gifts to Jesus, but she declined, saying she was too busy sweeping—of course, nothing is more important than house cleaning! She later changed her mind, but couldn’t find Jesus and now spends her days giving gifts to children. Michael remembers putting out slippers on the night before the Epiphany and having La Befana leave a few toys. (Yes, she flies all the way to New Jersey!) Last night, I don’t know if Alex realized that La Befana had visited our home, but he certainly enjoyed ripping the wrapping paper.
Our friend Luana and her family went to Urbania this year for the “Festa della Befana” which is a celebration that Michael and I attended last year. Urbania is a small medieval town close to the lovely Renaissance city of Urbino (it’s said that Urbino was spared from WWII bombing because the Allies mistakenly bombed Urbania instead). For the past decade, Urbania has branded itself as the birthplace of La Befana, similar to how Santa Claus resides in the North Pole. Children from all over Italy send letters to La Befana in Urbania. According to Samuele Sabatini, who organizes the Befana celebration in Urbania, “Babbo Natale (the Italian Santa) has a house at the North Pole, but nobody ever said where the Befana lived. So we decided that she lived here in Urbania. And the Befana has liked the location.” It’s true; Italians dressed as the good witch come from all across the country—we heard Neapolitans, Marchigiane, and Tuscans when we were there. The town hosts an annual week-long festival in early January in her honor, complete with fireworks, vendors selling local foods, and which culminates in La Befana riding down from the main bell tower to the ground, showering candy on the crowd. Tens of thousands of people attend—rain or shine.
Last year, it was a cold, rainy day, but that didn’t hamper the festival—parents and children were gleefully sampling hot roasted chestnuts, waffles (they’re like funnel cake in Italy—Americans have them for breakfast, but Italians serve them at fairs) and hot chocolate. Large calze (stockings) hung from windows and doors around the town. According to Luana, one of the stockings is 50 meters in length, making the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest stocking. A mule led a parade of men, women and children—some on stilts—dressed in colorful witch costumes. We ducked inside a café to get two cappuccinos and warm up. The place was packed with locals and tourists. After sampling some delicious coffee, we proceeded to the main piazza where the real highlight of the day was about to happen—La Befana was going to fly. As it turned out, and to the delight of all the children, dozens of different befane peered out from windows in the town hall, waving and throwing candy to the crowd below. We ducked under a large umbrella and peered up to the bell tower, where the Mayor of Urbania gave a speech. Then, the strega was lowered on ropes, appearing to fly on her broom across the piazza. A burst of fireworks followed, lighting up the darkening sky.
Urbania is the site of the national Befana festival and is the most popular in Italy. We had a wonderful experience and I hope to share it with Alex next time. For a fun read on the festival, click here: http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/0,1518,596060,00.html
The stats helper monkeys at WordPress.com mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:
The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads Wow.
A Boeing 747-400 passenger jet can hold 416 passengers. This blog was viewed about 8,300 times in 2010. That’s about 20 full 747s.
In 2010, there were 59 new posts, not bad for the first year! There were 114 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 275mb. That’s about 2 pictures per week.
The busiest day of the year was October 9th with 1,777 views. The most popular post that day was The culture of driving.
The top referring sites in 2010 were wordpress.com, lauradigiovine.com, facebook.com, michaeldigiovine.com, and mail.live.com.
Some visitors came searching, mostly for chasing cappuccinos, ortofrutta, pascucci, lemon carbonara, and chasing cappucinos.
These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.
The culture of driving October 2010
77 comments and 35 Likes on WordPress.com
About May 2010
Contact Me May 2010
Glorious Gubbio October 2010
A Pascucci Pilgrimage June 2010
As the first real snowfall of the season blankets Chicago, it’s a great morning to drink a cup of coffee, watch the flurries coat the trees, and reminisce about another cup of coffee. Over Thanksgiving, we were in New Jersey and went into New York City for the day. Our friends took us to Stumptown Coffee Roasters, which had recently received raves in the New York Times, because as our friend put it, “New York has everything but a decent cup of coffee.” So, we decided to test it out. Stumptown Coffee originated in my hometown of Portland, Oregon (I tried it out there years ago) and has a café in New York’s Ace Hotel, a trendy spot with a Portland vibe—full of dark oak beams, casual throw rugs (and animal pelts), and hipster baristas. We switched it up and I ordered a latte while my husband Michael tried a cappuccino. I have to say, the latte was better. The espresso was good, although not as rich and full as in Italy, but the milk was creamy. They definitely weren’t using 1%! Unfortunately, Michael’s cappuccino tasted burnt. After all that effort, too.
We watched the extremely meticulous barista measure out each spoonful of espresso from the grinder, tamp it down oh-so-carefully, and wipe off any excess grounds. He would then twirl the filter upside down to make sure the grounds were packed in tight enough, before attaching it to the espresso maker. He had the fierce concentration of a lab technician. After he brewed the coffee, another barista steamed and poured the milk (in Italy, only one person handles this task), swirling a leafy design on top of the thick foam. It was nice to see someone take such care in making a cup of coffee, but it was certainly a different experience from Italy. Italians take their coffee making just as seriously, but their meticulousness looks effortless. In one fluid motion, a good Italian barista would empty a used filter, measure out a new portion of coffee, tamp it down, attach the filter to the machine and brew it. Perhaps it’s because many baristas make their job a lifelong occupation in Italy whereas in America, being a barista is often a job to pay the bills while waiting for something better to come along. Either way, you still can’t beat a cappuccino—or a latte—in Italy. But, Stumptown Coffee treated coffee making as an art form, and I appreciated the effort!